Setting Boundaries with Toxic People (Part 2): Learned Dependency

In the previous blog post I’ve talked about the learned confusion that comes up when one is trying to set personal boundaries. In this article I will talk about another aspect of the boundaries-related struggles many people have difficulties with: learned dependency. (I recommend to read part one first.)

People who have been raised in a controlling environment, i.e., the vast majority of us, often have an incorrect perception of themselves (self-esteem issues), which leads to an inability to accurately perceive others and have healthy relationships). Children who are not allowed to be themselves – to feel, to think, to have needs, preferences, interests, and healthy boundaries – learn that:
  • Their emotions and thoughts are incorrect (self-trust and self-worth issues, confusion, self-doubt, destructive and/or self-destructive behavior).
  • Their needs, preferences, and interests are less important than others’ (people pleasing, social anxiety, social fears, “shyness,” passivity, chronic feeling of emptiness and boredom).
  • It’s OK to let others treat them poorly, and/or to threat others poorly (poor boundaries, unhealthy relationships, self-devaluation, co-dependency / counter-dependency, trust issues, passive and/or active aggression).
But most importantly, they don’t learn how to be an autonomous and self-sufficient human being. Children who grow up in a controlling environment learn to be irrationally dependent on others. An over-controlled child doesn’t develop a healthy sense of independence and competence – because their caregivers don’t teach them that; as listed above, they teach them the opposite of that.

Therefore, when such a person enters adulthood, on many levels they still feel like this small, over-controlled, helpless, incompetent, manipulated, hurt child they once were. It’s also because most people don’t have time to process all of it when growing up, since controlling / harmful treatment in many cases is a continuous process that usually starts from birth and continues in your “terrible twos,” “sneaky sevens,” “tense tens,” and “rebellious” teenage years. (All of which are euphemisms for “don’t be yourself.”) Also, as children most people don’t have a healthier point of reference or enough validation for their feelings and experiences – this only adds to the difficulties of processing what actually happened and is happening in your life.

Therefore, as an adult, on a fundamental level such a person feels that they still need a caregiver to survive – because it was true at some point, and they have been raised to fundamentally stay in a state of dependency and helplessness. Therefore, even as an adult on a fundamental level such a person psychologically still feels that they need their parents, grandparents, or other authority figures’ approval, acceptance, and emotional or even economical care to survive.

This ancient fear of rejection, detachment, danger, and death – which stems from early abandonment, neglect, and abuse – gets projected onto your adult relationships to the degree of its unresolvedness. Especially in relationships with your family members and romantic or sexual partners, but also in friendships, work relationships, acquaintanceships, or even with unknown people. The key factors here are:
  • Engrained unhealthy dynamics (e.g., with family members).
  • Intimacy-related triggers (e.g., in romantics relationships or friendships).
  • Power disparity and unequal responsibility.
  • A specific trauma-related triggers (pretty much anything can fit in this category: male-father association, female-mother association, disagreement-danger association, rejection-death association, etc.).
So when you finally start to notice the unhealthy dynamics and try to change it by setting healthier boundaries with people – especially with toxic people – helplessness, fear, loneliness, and many other feelings and thoughts may come up:

“That’s all I am worth” – learned self-devaluation.
“I deserve it” – learned rationalization and self-attack.
“I’m at fault here / I’m hurting them / I’m selfish / I’m cruel” – learned self-blame and confusion.
“I’m bad” – learned shame and guilt.
“I have to fix it” – learned over-responsibility.
“It’s not that bad” – learned minimization.
“People will think bad about me” – learned social anxiety.
“I will be alone forever” – learned fear of being alone and hyperbolizing.
“I can’t do anything about it” – learned helplessness and powerlessness.
“I can’t live / survive without them” – learned helplessness and dependency; this one is fundamental

This is why it is so extremely difficult for many people to set healthy boundaries. Usually, a lot of unprocessed psychological processes and dynamics are present, which basically manifest itself in a form of psychological dependency, fear, and self-doubt. All of the things mentioned here and in part one, if unprocessed both in the context of your current life and most importantly in the context of your early environment, are the key reasons why – other life struggles aside – you may have difficulties setting healthy boundaries.

Stay tuned for part three and have a self-sufficient day!

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  1. Great Articles, still waiting for part three!.

  2. Great articles, I really love the honesty in it and wonderful job for spreading awareness.


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